In the first of six articles on the people who make the British winter, avalanche forecaster Kathy Grindrod describes what her job entails - and how a close shave in the past helped to sharpen her knowledge.
Kathy Grindrod produces on-the-ground reports of avalanche risk and snow conditions in the Northern Cairngorms for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
I go out every single day I’m on duty in all weather and conditions. You know through experience where to go to best assess the hazard given the conditions. Even on a very bad day we’ll get somewhere. On average I work four days a week but it varies – sometimes it can be a whole week or just a couple of days. It's a really great job.
Two heads can be better than one, especially if it’s a complex situation. Sometimes I work alone, sometimes with another forecaster. It can also be an advantage to be with someone else at times for safety reasons, like if it’s a blizzard with poor visibility or very windy.
We try to go to different areas. The area we cover is varied and includes the Northern Corries, the Loch Avon basin, Braeriach and beyond. Obviously we can’t travel for miles and miles and still get everything done in a day, but we do try and vary it. Generally we go to areas where the most recent windslab accumulations have formed or if conditions are cold and settled we may have to monitor a developing weakness within the snowpack. It’s so variable in the Highlands.
WATCH: Winter skills 2.1: avalanche and route assessment on BMC TV
We make lots and lots of observations on the move. We look if the snow is cracking underfoot, indicating unstable windslab. If it’s windy and drifting we make a mental note of the aspects that are being affected. We also keep a close eye on the history and current weather situation. Has it been very cold? Has surface hoar developed after a cold night? How windy and how much new snow is there? We take in the whole picture before making our assessment.
Actually doing a snow profile is only 10% of the whole day. It is interesting to look at the crystals, temperatures and so forth, and to identify weak layers in more detail, but we take all observations into consideration.
The pressure to get the forecast right is just part of the job. We’ve all got enough experience to know what the situation is. But we put a lot of thought into what we write – we want to get it right. When you sit down it’s like “ok, we have to be quiet, don’t talk to me for the next hour”.
It’s sometimes hard to ‘turn off’ from work. If the weather has been particularly bad, quite often I wake up in the night and think: “Is it snowing? Will I be able to get up the hill tomorrow?” But I can leave it behind on my days off or holiday. I do go to warm places!
You could go home feeling responsible for what people do, but you’d be a nervous wreck. You be as accurate and do as best a job as you possibly can. But you can’t control what everybody does.
People still have to use their own judgement when they go into the hills. What we produce is an extra tool which can help people with their decision-making. But it’s one of many tools, and it’s important to make your own observations as you go along. It’s nature, after all; we can’t predict everything.
I was avalanched in the Northern Corries many years ago. The weather was particularly horrible, but I was used to it as I’d been out climbing in foul weather before. There was a southerly wind with a lot of drifting. On the walk in I kept thinking "this is not my idea of fun". Apart from braving the elements it all felt wrong. Even as we wandered up towards the final approach slope, I knew I wasn’t going to climb and I had made my mind up to head back out.
The next thing I heard was a loud crack. The scarp slope naturally triggered at the top of the crag above us from the build-up of windslab. The three of us looked up to see a cloud of airborne snow above us.
We immediately stuck our ice axes in the snow and crouched down. A few seconds later we stood up, ankle deep in fluffy snow, then realised one of our party was 10 metres down the slope, lying on top of the snow. Soon after in the distance there was another loud crack, and we heard later that a similar thing happened to someone else; except they were half way up a climb.
Everyone survived, but the moral of the story is all the signs were there, including my gut feeling. I just needed to have been more honest with myself and brave enough to say to my climbing partners that we should call it a day and go for a coffee instead, but I guess it's hard when you don't want to let other people down. I learned a lot from this experience but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone!
Other articles in this series:
Mountain Rescuer: “Even experienced people can underestimate Snowdon in winter.”
Mountain weatherman: “I think it’s important to regularly experience what you write.”
'Snow patch' expert: "These would be the beginnings of glaciers"
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